Strength in Unity: Zikz on CLG’s confidence, bootcamping and perfecting the process

by theScore Staff Sep 23 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of LoL eSports

Counter Logic Gaming have a complicated relationship with expectations.

CLG weren't expected to keep pace with the rest of the NA LCS in the 2016 spring split, after replacing Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng and Eugene “Pobelter” Park with Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes and Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun. They came out and won a championship anyways. They weren't expected to pose a threat at the Mid-Season Invitational (MSI) afterwards, but they beat SK Telecom T1 in the group stage and made it to the finals.

It cuts both ways, though. At the 2015 World Championships, North American fans hoped that CLG would go in as the region’s top seed and make NA look good, but they subverted that expectation, too, dropping out in the group stage and losing to Brazil’s paiN Gaming.

CLG have always underachieved and overachieved in their own good time, heedless of outside narratives. As the 2016 World Championship approaches, CLG have been digging deep in their Korean bootcamp, intent on once again telling their own story, on their own terms.

Gotta have faith

CLG are uniquely self-motivated. Their confidence is always evident, even when outside voices are casting doubt on them or criticizing the talent of their players.

Some players seem to crave outside validation. They need to be known as “the best AD carry in NA” or “the best laner in EU,” and it rattles them and goads them into social media outbursts when they don’t get the recognition they think they deserve. CLG give off a different vibe: even if no one else believes in them, they believe in each other. That’s the mindset that has led top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaya to make such bold claims in the past, predicting about Worlds 2015, for example, that CLG were “definitely going to make it out of groups,” and would “have a pretty good shot at winning.”

Self-confidence is one of the most potent tools in CLG’s arsenal. That’s been clear ever since they won their first NA LCS title, in summer 2015, by crushing Team SoloMid 3-0 at Madison Square Gardens. Chris Ehrenreich, CLG’s coach at the time, later said that “every single person in our organization knew that we were going to step up and 3-0 TSM.” Just like Darshan’s ill-fated Worlds 2015 prediction, a claim like that wasn’t due to a lack of respect for the opposition — CLG just had that much confidence and will to win. It was a mindset Ehrenreich and his strategic coach, Tony “Zikz” Gray, had worked hard to instill in their players.

Zikz is now CLG’s head coach, and confidence continues to be one of the main resources he and his team are stockpiling as they bootcamp in South Korea and ready themselves for Worlds. Zikz tells theScore esports that the main goal of CLG’s Korean bootcamp is to “improve overall to a point that we feel we are one of the strongest teams competing at the tournament.” That speaks mostly to the need for improvements in the team’s level of play; CLG’s confidence levels, according to Zikz, are already high. Elaborating, Zikz says that he feels CLG “hit ultimate confidence and understanding that we are competitors when we first beat SKT at MSI.”

CLG’s mentality is clearly not an issue. But as their middling summer results show, creating and executing game plans requires more than just a positive attitude. If CLG want to return to their SKT-defeating heights, they need to hone their skills with some high-quality practice time. Luckily, CLG have consistently proven that they know how to get value out of prep time.

Extreme Makeover, CLG edition

One of the biggest factors in CLG’s successful spring split was the willingness to take a step back in order to take two steps forward. That willingness was rooted in self-awareness and unshakeable mental strength, but the results truly came to life through persistence and dedication to the process of growth.

Even before the 2016 spring split began, CLG’s shocking roster change, which saw the removal of Doublelift and Pobelter, showed a rebuilding mentality from the org. It was a clear backwards step in terms of raw skill, but the final results vindicated that decision.

In terms of playstyle, CLG made big, foundational shifts as well, risking disruption in order to pursue a better approach to the game. Through the spring regular season, CLG asserted themselves as a hardcore split pushing team. It was virtually their only effective strategy: put Darshan on Fiora or something similar, and find ways to scale up and out-rotate in the late game. That was a good enough game plan to hand the Immortals their only regular season defeat through a surprise Fiora plus Udyr backdoor, but it was too one-dimensional, and wasn’t likely to carry CLG to playoff victory. Recognizing this, CLG worked hard in the pre-playoffs break and hit the Rift with a new look, reinventing themselves as a 5v5 teamfighting squad. Relying on that aspect of their play, CLG overcame TSM in the finals and booked a ticket to MSI.

There were still imperfections in CLG’s new identity, and many commentators pegged CLG as an underdog going into the event. Still, the team kept working, refined themselves, and shocked the world by taking a game off of SKT in the group stage before advancing to the finals.

Summer has been a more trying time for CLG. They struggled to read the meta early on and fell behind, ultimately clawing their way to a disappointing fourth-place finish. Imperfect preparatory work proved costly during the regular season, but CLG began to show signs of recovery in the playoffs. Unfortunately, one of Huhi’s best champions, Aurelion Sol, was disabled during the semifinals due to an in-game bug. The loss of Aurelion Sol unsettled CLG somewhat as they lost that series to TSM, but one week later they hit the Rift refreshed against the Immortals and had clearly used the intervening time well. They looked much more put-together and pushed one of North America’s best teams to a fifth game before ultimately falling.

CLG lost a lot of time throughout the summer, both because of their weak start and the loss of Zikz to illness for part of the split. As CLG approach the most important event of the year, they have a lot of ground to make up. That’s what makes CLG’s pre-Worlds bootcamp so crucially important.

Drop and give me twenty

As September rolls around each year, it’s a given that most or all of the World Championship-qualifying teams will make a pilgrimage to South Korea to spend time in an intensive practice setting. The players get to spend time in Korean solo queue while the coaches set up scrims against teams from the other parts of the group draw. It’s an all-out whirlwind, and the focus is on getting as much out of the opportunity as possible.

Korean bootcamps are becoming more and more familiar for Zikz: this is his third time making the trip. That kind of experience and familiarity are the rewards of success, direct results of Zikz's ability to lead multiple iterations of his roster into international play.

CLG have improved their approach to bootcamping over time. Zikz feels this year’s bootcamp has been CLG’s most efficient so far. What’s the secret? Zikz says it comes down to “actively focusing on the [learning] process.” When the process is perfected, the lessons themselves flow freely and are identified and absorbed more quickly. Zikz also credits part of the improvement to a new bootcamp motto: going in, he and the team agreed, in writing, that they would "let no problem go unsolved or unaddressed." Even if it’s difficult, or leads to frustration, CLG are tackling every issue head on.

CLG are being supported in that process by an unexpected ally. Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin, jungler for the Immortals, accompanied CLG to Korea and has been working with the team, uniting to support North America’s cause. Specifically, Reignover has been working with Jake “Xmithie” Puchero and the rest of the squad to help shore up CLG’s early game and their transitions into the mid game. Zikz says Reignover has been “insanely helpful,” and has been “doing a fantastic job of helping us improve.” Getting coaching support from a regional rival is a novel arrangement, but that’s the kind of unique, outside-the-box opportunity that could help push CLG back to their spring form.

Taking care of business

Aside from the issues Reignover is helping them with, CLG's list of problems to address includes the individual play of their solo laners, Darshan and Huhi. Both players have struggled to contribute consistently all summer. Huhi's team-first play style has been laudable, but hasn't entirely made up for his struggles in lane. There's some good news for him, though, with Aurelion Sol being re-enabled for Worlds. Darshan's issues are similar: he's done well when asked to move around the map and help out with team plays, but his solo work has been lacking. His inefficient farming has been especially problematic, as he seems to sacrifice CS every time he moves out of his lane. Other teams have been able to strike a better balance between the farming and roaming duties of their top laners, but so far CLG haven't been able to solve that problem for themselves.

Generally speaking, Zikz says that he and his staff and players have been “focusing on ourselves and playing our own style early on in the tournament.” There’s one key area, though, where CLG’s preparations are looking outwards. “We didn't anticipate so many teams having different takes on what is strongest at any given point in a meta,” says Zikz. By drawing attention to this point, he seems to be showing that he’s still bothered by CLG’s unclear early read on the summer meta. This bootcamp is a second chance to get it right.

For that matter, the entire Worlds tournament could be seen as a second chance for CLG, after the disappointment they suffered last year. CLG clearly has failings to redeem. Few commentators and analysts seem to think they’re up to the task, with most predicting that CLG will finish below Europe's G2 Esports and once again drop out at the group stage.

Just like this spring, external expectations for CLG are low.

If I'm Zikz and his team, I like the sound of that.

Tim "Magic" Sevenhuysen runs, the premier source for League of Legends esports statistics. You can find him on Twitter, unless he’s busy giving one of his three sons a shoulder ride.